Introducing chunking: one key to speaking clearly

A picture of a chocolate bar
Speak like you'd eat this chocolate bar—one small chunk at a time

One essential part of speaking well is to break your speech into short chunks—usually a few words— and pausing briefly after each one. 

As an English learner, you may focus too much on your grammar or vocabulary and forget about pausing naturally. There are two main mistakes people make with chunking.

The first mistake is pausing too much. If you pause too much, it means that you haven't practiced speaking enough. 

It. Sounds. Like. This. Or it. Sounds like. This it. Is. Of Course. Not very clear.

(Correctly spoken, that would be, "It sounds like this. Or, it  sounds like this. It is, of course, not very clear.") 

The other mistake is pausing too little. If you speak too quickly, it means you are not thinking about the listener. It's very hard to understand when people speak like that. 

Not pausing enough so you keep speaking and sounding as if you are going to continue and you never stop is not easy to understand and the sentence gets harder and harder to understand like this one.

(Correctly spoken, that might be, "Not pausing enough—if you keep speaking as if you are going to continue—is not easy to understand. The sentence gets harder and harder to understand, like this one.")

Obviously, those two examples are bad ways of speaking.

The goal is to separate your speech into chunks of a few words and pause slightly after each chunk. But how can you do that? The short answer is to find good models and practice. One strategy is to pay close attention to your teacher. Listen not only to what they are saying, but also to how they are speaking

Or, for some great examples of chunking, use TED talks like this one: 

Notice that as Robin Steinberg speaks, she pauses between her thoughts.

For instance, starting at 45 seconds, she says,

There was a small, square table bolted to the floor and two metal chairs, one on either side. 

Try reading it out loud. Where would you pause?

She chunks it like this: 

There was a small, square table / bolted to the floor / and two metal chairs, / one on either side.

The first chunk is a little longer, and the next three are relatively short. This makes a pleasing rhythm. Also, importantly, you can see she doesn't always pause at a comma. In fact, commas do not always mean you have to pause, and conversely, when you read aloud you will need to pause even in places where there is no comma. 

So limit your speaking to short chunks and pause after each one. Also, don't add too much grammar and over-complicate your English—don't put too many ideas in one sentence. 

It can be very difficult to know exactly how big or small your chunks should be. Just start listening critically to English speakers and start thinking about the size of the chunks you use. 

If you can speak in nicely-sized chunks, you will be much easier to understand. Your speaking test score will increase, and listeners will enjoy what you are saying a lot more. Practice it in your next lesson!

chunk [noun/verb]—a part of information a speaker separates into a short, understandable part. Eg. one long sentence can be chunked into many short chunks.
conversely [adverb]—opposite, used to link two ideas that are directly opposite.